Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer

Dyer Climate Wars coverWhile the political class still appear to give a very low priority to the problems that will be caused by climate change, the military are already planning for them.  The following quotation, cited in this book, is from a federally funded study called National Security and Climate Change, published in 2007.  Retired generals and admirals from all four of America’s armed services were invited to comment on the the security aspects of climate change.   This observation is from a Marine Corps general:

We will pay for this one way or another.  We will pay to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind.  Or we will pay the price later in military terms.  And that will involve human lives.

Conflicts occur when different groups of people are competing for scarce resources.   As climate change plays out, areas of the world that can now feed themselves will no longer be able to do so, in some cases because of flooding (for example Bangladesh) in others  because of low rainfall (southern Europe and much of Africa, China and central America), in some cases because the loss of mountain glaciers mean that rivers will run dry in the summer (Pakistan and California are both dependant on glacial meltwater to irrigate their farms.)   This will lead to pressure on land (China, for instance, might resurrect land claims in Siberia), and disputes over water. (What would Egypt do if countries upstream were to divert the waters of the Nile?  What would happen if India diverted more water from the Indus, on which Pakistan depends?)  It will also lead to huge migrations across the world in which the still relatively viable countries will either have to seal off their borders, or face an influx of climate refugges.  (How will the people of Africa react when they are starving and the North won’t let them in, even though it caused the problem in the first place?)

One of the strengths of Dyer’s book (the second book with this same title that I’ve recently read) is that he offers scenarios set at various dates in the twentieth century that illustrate the kinds of conflicts that would occur.   Another is the clear, bold way it’s written, interspersed with interview material that is woven into the overall narrative.   It is a fairly grim read but a very engaging one nevertheless.

Dyer makes a number of arresting points.   One of these is that as conflict increases, the chances of collective global action to address the underlying cause  will dwindle to zero.  Another is that climate change is itself only one of a series of global challenges that lie ahead of us for the forseeable future: the size of the human population, and its expectations, are pushing the planet’s resources to their limits, and there’s no longer any slack.

Dyer’s concluding message, one that he knows is controversial, is that we aren’t going to be able to cut carbon emissions in time – we’ve simply left it too late – and that, in the short term at least, there are going to have to be some technical fixes which will either extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth.

There are two reasons why this is controversial.  One is that it involves tinkering with some very fundamental things that we don’t fully understand.   (Dyer’s answer is that it’s a bit late to start worrying about that now.  We’ve already tinkered massively, and we’ve long since passed the point where we can simply hand the controls of spaceship Earth back to Mother Nature.)  The other is that it presents a moral hazard: as soon as we get a whiff of a technical fix we’ll stop even trying to address the real underlying problem.  Dyer acknowledges this danger – he’s already argued earlier in the book that human beings always push things to their limits – but what he seems to be saying is that, if we want to avoid the tipping point where negative feedback loops will send global warming spiralling upwards, we really don’t have much choice.

The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley

Bush

This is George Bush in Air Force One, flying back from Texas to Washington.  He’s requested that the plane divert over New Orleans, and he has invited the press to come through from their section of the plane to photograph him looking down concernedly at the city whose lower parts have now been flooded for two days, since Hurricane Katrina broke the levees.   If any single image captures the mediocrity of this man, this is surely it.   This was not a leader, but a dull little rich kid whose daddy’s friends had fixed him up with a job, and provided him with helpers to do the difficult parts.  In this case, even the helpers screwed up.

‘You’re doing a great job, Brownie!’ Bush told the Director of FEMA, the federal agency responsible, but of course as we all know the agency’s performance was very far from a great job.   In a curiously telling detail, Douglas Brinkley observes that Brownie was not in fact a nickname that anyone actually used.  The dull little rich kid was trying to suggest a level of engagement that did not in fact exist.

The Great Deluge is an account of what actually lies below him as he gazes down for the cameras: a devastated city, where bloated corpses are floating in the streets, sick and elderly people are dying alone in flooded houses, and thousands are crammed into a sports stadium without adequate food, water or medical attention, waiting for an evacuation which, for no obvious reason, has still not arrived.

There is lawlessness.  Some of the local police have simply abandoned their posts and run.  Women waiting for rescue have been raped.  Looters raid shops not only to steal but in some strange attavistic ritual (of revenge?  of triumph?) to defecate on cash registers and on goods that they can’t carry away.  But the lawlessness has been taken by many of those who should be helping the survivors as a reason for treating them all as criminals.  (Another telling moment: a new general arrives in New Orleans to get a grip on the military efforts, and one of his first acts is to instruct is to instruct National Guardsman not to point their guns at people when they’re talking to them.)

The very boundary between lawful and unlawful has in any case been blurred.  Is it really looting to break into a store for bottles of clean water, when the only other option is drinking polluted flood-water in which human and animal corpses are floating?  (Is it even exactly looting, I wonder, to steal a TV or some other valuable piece of hardware, when you’ve lost your home and have no savings to fall back on?)  In the Morial Convention Centre, some gangsters are taking it upon themselves to provide protection for the vulnerable in the absence of any formal forces of law.  Other are just terrorising the weak.

The fact that nearly all the people trapped in New Orleans are black and poor almost certainly doesn’t help.   Police officers and Guardsmen frequently treat them with undisguised contempt, and suggest that it is their own stupid fault that they stayed in the city after warnings were given that they should move.  But where would you go, if everyone you know lives in the streets around you, you have no money to pay for accomodation elsewhere and the government, though it can afford to pay for wars on the far side of the world, has provided nothing?  Some people who try to leave on foot are stopped at gunpoint by police from neighbouring areas which don’t want to take them in.

It’s outside the scope of this book but we know too that other communities which did initially respond generously were quickly to grow tired of the burden of caring for the incomers, and to begin to stigmatise them as lazy and undeserving of help.  In another book I read recently*, a woman relocated to Austin, Texas, describes her children being bullied and stigmatised at school because they are ‘people from the storm’.

I wasn’t completely enamoured of the way The Great Deluge was written – I could have done without some of the long, folksy biographies of various characters with which the account is punctuated, and the numerous quotations from songs and literature which never seemed quite as apt as the author seemed to think they were – but it provides a detailed and vivid overview nevertheless of what actually happened during that dreadful time, as well as of the things that one would expect to happen in the world’s wealthiest country but in fact did not.   I was left with a powerful sense of how quickly we human beings can shut down compassion when it asks too much of us, simply by relabelling our fellow humans as something other than ourselves.

Any one seriously interested in writing or thinking about the future should be reading this book, and books like it.   The way things are going, there are going many more flooded cities before this century is out, many more people who don’t have access to food or water, a lot more ‘people from the storm’.

*Community Lost: the State, Civil Society, and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina, by Ronald J Angel, Holly Bell, Julie Beausoleil and Laura Lein.

New wells of violence

When I was young I studied at Bristol University, and stayed there for a year afterwards.   I still have friends and relatives living there, and visit regularly.  It is the first city I came to know and love as a place.  I still love it, with its famous and dramatic gorge, its stone-faced houses, its hills, its green spaces, the way that any street corner can open up a whole new vista.

But the things that made the city what it is are not so beautiful: Bristol grew rich on the slave trade, the tobacco industry and, more recently, the arms trade.  And of course, as in any city, there is a dark side hidden away out of sight of the parks and the gorge and the gaily painted terraces winding up and down the hills.  Behind all this, as in any British city, are pockets of grimness and deprivation (something I tried to portray in my novel Marcher) which few people ever see if they don’t have occasion to see them out.   So, like Ursula le Guin’s fictional Omelas, Bristol’s charm and beauty stands on a base of hidden suffering.

Climate wars coverThe same could be said of much that we value in the developed world.   We all know of course that what counts as an average sort of life-style in our part of the planet – car and house ownership, TV, computers, smart phones, annual foreign holidays, meat every day, an office job, a hot shower every morning – is in fact, in global terms, exceptionally wealthy and privileged.  Most of us are probably also aware that part of the reason for our ability to access so much in the way of consumer goods, is that the producers of the raw materials, and very likely the producers of the goods themselves, are paid much much less than we are.   We may also be dimly aware – Harald Welzer makes this point rather well in his interesting book ‘Climate Wars’ – that our way of life is also underpinned by more or less constant violence and warfare.  Long chains of responsibility can make this less obvious – the violence typically takes place far away from us, and is rationalised in various ways – but it takes constant and large-scale application of brute force to secure our access to the resources required to maintain our lifestyle and to secure our frontiers so that not too many people come and share our bounty with us.

There are several strategies for dealing with the potential for discomfort arising from these facts.  One is simply to shrug them off, ask ‘Who ever said the world was fair?’, and indicate our intention to defend what we own and have worked for.  Another is to place responsibility for poverty on the poor: ‘It’s up to them to sort it out.  No one ever helped us.’  Another is to absolve ourselves by pointing to some abstraction – ‘It’s capitalism!’ is a common one, as if capitalism had some sort of autonomous existence, and was not simply a name for a nexus in which most of us are complicit – or to people even wealthier than we are: ‘SUV owners’, for instance, are great targets for ordinary car owners to point to.

Another again is to argue that, wealthy as we are by global standards, we are somehow helping to bring the rest of the world up to our level (there are various versions of this last one, including a capitalist narrative of world development, socialist narratives about building a new world order, and more personal narratives built around activity such as charitable work).

What is clear though is that the whole world never can come up to our level.  There is a finite and, in many cases, steadily diminishing supply of resources: agricultural land, water, copper, zinc, coltan, oil, phospates  There is a steadily increasing number of people.   Meat every day for everyone, for instance, may require more agricultural land than actually exists (because growing crops to feed cattle is a much less efficient use of land than growing crops for human consumption), even before one factors in the future lack of availability of phosphates for fertilizers.

So the comforting idea that, wealthy and privileged as we are, we are helping others to one day reach our level, is false, because we are rich not only in purely relative terms (that is: rich by comparison with the world average), but rich in absolute terms.  We are already using more of the world’s resources than could ever be available to the entire population of the planet.

No wonder all that violence is necessary!

Pressure on resources will become more acute as increased population, and increased competition from emerging economies, and as climate change (itself a side product of our consumption of resources) increasingly provides an additional stressor: large areas of the world may soon no longer be able to support the population that they once did.  In this context, violent conflict over resources and borders will proliferate – Welzer proposes that the Darfur conflict in Sudan is an early instance of a climate war: two ethnic groups, who were once able to coexist, have there been brought into conflict by a water shortage which means they both need access to the same land – and wealthier parts of the world will have increasingly to deploy force to protect their privileged position.

It is difficult to visualise a political way out of this.  Human reason, human political structures seem so weak when compared to the magnitude of the changes that are required.  There are even moments when I think what is really needed is something more akin to a prophet, a Moses, a Mohammed, a Joseph Smith, a Mary Baker Eddy, who will come down from a mountain with a new set of commandments: Thou shalt not have more than two kids, Thou shalt not eat meat more than once a week, Thou shalt not throw anything away that can be used again…

Something that should be there is missing

Radio Free AI have probably read more novels by Philip K. Dick than by any other author (possible exception: Captain W.E. Johns, whose works I read voraciously when I was about 9 or 10), but I still haven’t read much more than a quarter of his total output.   I probably never will because, as well as some utterly brilliant books, his enormous output includes some pretty mediocre stuff.  Even his best books have what normally would be seen as flaws: careless world-building, wonky make-it-up-as-you-go-along plots, unevennesses in the quality of the prose.  I forgive these instantly in a book like Palmer Eldritch, Flow My Tears or Electric Sheep.  In fact they are part of the effect.  In a lesser book, like Martian Timeslip for instance, they start to jar.

I picked up this book because I read somewhere that it’s going to be made into a film – how many Dick novels and stories will that make it which have now been filmed since his death? – and I was curious to know why this book had been chosen.

The book is actually an early stab at what was to become VALIS.   The entity VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligent System) is in this book also.  And, as in the novel VALIS, the book deal in a fictionalised way with the experience which Dick had in real life, which he came to think of as a communication from a vastly intelligent non-human being.   Dick claimed that this experience imparted information about his son’s medical condition which allowed him to seek appropriate medical help and save his son’s life.   It seems an odd move to have  had such a strange and overwhelming experience in real life, and then embed an account of it within the made-up strangenesses of a science fiction novel, but this is what Dick did.

As in VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth uses the device of having two separate fictionalised versions of Dick himself.   In VALIS one of these was called Philip K. Dick, while the other was called Horselover Fat (the anglicisation of Dick’s Greek first name and German surname).  Here one of the two stand-ins for Dick is Nicholas Brady, who has the experience of the strange communication which enables him to save his son (and, like the real life Philip Dick, at the beginning of the book Nick works in a record store), the other is called Philip K. Dick, and is a science fiction novelist, author of The Man in the High Castle etc etc.

In this book, America is under the tyrannical, Stalinist rule of President Ferris F. Fremont (F being of course the 6th letter of the alphabet), and the novel proposes that we are living in the biblical end times, the world of the Book of Revelations.   An evil empire has the entire planet in its grip, cutting it off from any contact with the wider universe, and a tiny body of revolutionaries are attempting, quixotically, to overthrow it.  In spite of superficial appearances to the contrary, we are still essential in the first century, and persecuted Christians are still pitted against the Roman Empire.

This same notion of Earth as somehow lost and cut off from the rest of the universe, and in the control of malign power*, can also be found in Doris Lessing’s Shikasta and C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (the silent planet being Earth, as seen from the rest of the solar system).  It obviously has roots in the Christian notion of the ‘fall’, and medieval notions of the sublunary sphere, the part of the universe below the orbit of the moon, as a place of corruption.  But it also connects I think with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the idea that in our ignorance we are looking at shadows on the wall of a cave while the real world goes on outside in the sunlight.

Plato was thinking about ignorance, while the idea of the fall is about sin and disobedience, but for me the idea that something that should be there is missing has a powerful subjective plausibility.  That’s how te world feels to me a lot of the time: something that should be there is missing.   I suppose this is rooted, at least in part, in a basic and unavoidable fact of human existance.  Even though we ourselves are part of the world, we can only know the world through our senses, at one remove, so that the real unmediated universe always lies tantalisingly beyond our reach.

*See also a previous post about the sonnet ‘Batter my heart’ by John Donne.  It portrays a human soul as a town captured by a hostile power.

Enchanted objects

The great gatsbyI saw the recent movie of The Great Gatsby.  Visually I found it  a little lurid, but I was interested by the story and I went on to read the book, which was already sitting there on our shelves.

What had particularly struck me in the film – it is actually surprisingly faithful to the book – was the image of the little green light burning across the bay.  It is the light at the end of the landing stage of the mansion of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy.

There is a brilliant moment, after Gatsby has met up with Daisy again, where the narrator wonders if Gatsby has noticed that the green light will never again have the same meaning:

‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,’ said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.’

Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

The Burning Question, by Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark

The-Burning-Question-book-coverIf you are looking for an introductory book on the climate crisis, this is as good as any I’ve read.  It sets out the issues in a clear and focussed way, and tours the science, politics, psychology and economics of the subject, as well as providing an overview of the options for the future.

Several things stand out for me after reading this book.   One is that doing something about climate change isn’t just a question of developing alternatives to fossil fuels.  Our appetite for energy is such that we are quite capable of developing renewables and still consuming more fossil fuels than ever.

So we don’t just need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, we need to set a limit to the total amount of fossil fuels we use.  This means leaving a lot of the world’s known reserves of coal and oil permanently in the ground.  No wonder the people that own them are unhappy!

Another thing that stood out (and this of course is linked to my previous point) is the dishonesty and virulence of the multi-million-dollar climate change denial industry.   ‘They call it pollution.  We call it life,’ said one US TV ad, as if anyone had called carbon dioxide ‘pollution’, or denied its importance to life.  Another billboard campaign by the Heartland Institute

showed mug-shots of serial killers alongside the words: ‘I still believe in global warming.  Do You?’  Heartland’s president, Joseph Bast, said on the accompanying press release, ‘The most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists.  They are Charles Manson, a mass murderer; Fidel Castro, a tyrant; and Ted Kaczynksi, the Unabomber.  Global warming alarmists include Osama bin Laden, and James L. Lee.’

The savagery and cynicism of this, not to mention its utter weirdness, is fairly scary (see also Tom Burke’s piece on this here), but perhaps there’s some hope to be found in its sheer desperation?  It suggests (doesn’t it?) that the deniers are pretty worried, don’t really believe they have a real argument, and don’t necessarily think they’re going to win.

Which of course they won’t.  Because ultimately we’ll either do something about the problem, or find out the hard way just how wrong they were.

I recommend this book.

The Hunters, by James Salter

The HuntersJames Salter’s first novel, and the only book of his that I’ve read, was originally published in 1956.  It’s about American fighter pilots in the Korean War, a transition point in aerial warfare, when the planes were jets with swept-back wings, but still fought each other with guns, as the fighters of WW2 had done.

I bought the book after reading an article on Salter in the LRB by James Meek, which observed that twentieth-century American novelists tend to depict the military as victims, but that The Hunters had more in common with the Iliad or Beowulf than with Catch-22.  In this book, aerial warfare is not depicted as a cruel waste of young men, but as a kind of princely sport.   Salter himself was an USAF officer for some time, and was a fighter pilot in the Korean War – he himself shot down a MIG fighter above the Yalu River – and his attitude to this experience is evident in his preface to the 1997 edition:

It was said of Lord Byron that he was more proud of his Norman ancestors who had accompanied William the Conqueror in the invasion of England than of having written famed works…  Looking back, I feel a pride akin to that in having flown and fought along the Yalu.

All this is very remote from my own experience, my own stance on life, my own temperament, and my own sense of what I’m capable of, physically, emotionally, morally.   I dislike war and the readiness to resort to war as a means of solving problems.  I seldom win at competitive games.  I’ve worked most of my adult life in a profession in which women outnumber men by eight or nine to one.  But I nevertheless found myself interested in this book about an exclusively male world in which hunting down MIGs is

… a child’s dream and a man’s heaven, living a medieval life under sanitary conditions, flying the last shreds of something irreplaceable, I don’t know what, in a sport too kingly even for kings.   

The only strand of connection I have with this world is that I was fascinated by fighter planes as a child.   I owned many books about them.   I loved to see them in the sky, and, when I had the chance, to go and look at them close up, their silvery riveted wings, their cramped cockpits filled with mysterious dials, their sleek forms made unspeakably glamorous by their association with speed and power and death. 

WAR mag coverAnother thing I remember from my childhood was a form of comic book that we used to refer to as ‘war mags’.  They were a kind of graphic novel, I suppose, or graphic novella anyway.   I don’t remember ever actually buying one, but they were passed about at school and I must have read dozens of them, each one containing a single story about British soldiers or airmen in World War II, fighting against the Germans (who said things like ‘Britisher schweinhund!’) or the Japanese (who said ‘Banzai!’).  There were a lot of blazing machine guns and grim-faced men, but fighting the enemy was always the backdrop to a more personal story about male relationships.   As I recall a typical plot involved rivalry or even bitter hatred between two men, or perhaps two groups of men, who were supposed to be fighting on the same side.   A happy ending might be the resolution of this conflict, and a new friendship, or at least a new respect, ‘forged in the white heat of battle’, or alternatively the death of a real bad egg, paying the price of his own lack of courage, or integrity, or loyalty to his mates.

The Hunters, it seems to me, is essentially a literary war mag.   The plot centres on the rivalry between Cleve, the main viewpoint character, who desperately longs for ‘kills’ but somehow keeps failing to be in the sky at the right moment, and Pell, a shallow and selfish man who is quite prepared to place his comrades’ lives in jeopardy in his pursuit of the five MIGs that will make him officially an ‘ace’.   

At one point, Cleve is on the tail of a MIG and about to make a kill when Pell radios for help:  he’s being pursued by MIGs and is unable to extricate himself because, when he tried to jettison his disposable fuel tanks, one of them got stuck and is now hanging half off, impairing his manoeuvrability.  Cleve, honourably, abandons the chase to rescue him, even though he’s desperate to add a second kill to his solitary success.   Pell subsequently shakes off his drop tank and goes on to claim the destruction of another MIG as his crucial fifth kill.  Basking in glory back at base, he crowns his ingratitude and dishonesty by insinuating that Cleve, the man who gave up a kill to save him, is a coward who avoids a fight. 

All this is pure war mag, it really is, but I guess that the world evoked by war mags wasn’t entirely a fantasy, and that Homer wasn’t making it all up when he wrote about those fierce and competitive warrior-princes.  A particular kind of grouping, held together by a code of honour, and driven by a very clear and very narrow definition of success for which its members are willing to risk everything, really does exist, and really is one of the many ways in which human beings manage to imbue their lives with meaning.  There are odder things, after all.  There are people whose entire life is organised around the need to get a bicycle round a circular track a fraction of second faster than anyone else.

Salter’s sparse, Hemingway-like prose works well, writing about men who are not in the habit of discussing their emotions and would regard it as sissy to wax lyrical about beauty.  Occasional, carefully rationed outbursts of lyricism are all the more effective for emerging from out of this Spartan restraint, particularly the evocations of those mysterious landscapes of cloud and air, far enough above the ground to be separate worlds, which are the medium through which the pilots fly and seek their enemies.   Salter’s sudden, temporary viewpoint shifts, too, going against all the usual rules, are daring and interesting and worth studying as a technique.  The war mag plot is sometimes rather predictable – when a pilot’s longing to get home to his wife and sons is described in more detail than any other pilot’s homesickness, or when a gun camera is jammed at the beginning of a mission so that there will be no photographic evidence of any kill, or when a legendary MIG pilot known as Casey Jones puts in an appearance on the enemy side, you just know what’s going to happen next – but it drives the book forward and keeps you turning the pages, just as it did in the war mags themselves.

War mags never had women in them.  Here, the few women characters, described almost entirely in terms of their physical attractiveness to the men, are entirely marginal figures – they include barmaids, waitresses , prostitutes, and one young Japanese woman who very briefly becomes an object of romantic yearning – but I guess this is may be realistic, in a novel written from the perspective of the male pilots.   When you focus exclusively on a single narrow objective, presumably editing out as far as possible the horror of the deaths you cause or may suffer yourself, your grasp of the rest of the world must indeed become attenuated, utilitarian and shallow.  Cleve half-grasps this himself, though much of the time he seems to accept that this narrowness of vision, and the risk of a horrible death, are prices worth paying for those solitary existential moments among the clouds, hunting and being hunted.      

Slavery by Another Name, by David Blackmon

Book coverAs a writer of made-up stories, I’m increasingly in awe of writers who tell stories about real people, reconstructed from historical evidence, and increasingly drawn to reading them.

This book is about the way in which, after the formal abolition of slavery, white Southern society was able to reintroduce black slavery in a new, but equally brutal, form which continued to exist until 1945: well into living memory.  Douglas Blackmon brings this story alive by repeatedly drawing out individual lives from the historical backdrop: real tragedies, real attrocities, and occasional real acts of courage.  It’s a history book, and a very harrowing one, but its also a real page-turner.

The way the new form of slavery worked was by sentencing people to hard labour and then selling them on to local employers.  This happened at the state level, but it happened in an extraordinarily off-hand and corrupt way also at county level, where local officials would arrest black people as a source of saleable slave labour, often on trivial or made-up charges, such as playing with dice, talking loudly in the presence of white women, ‘vagrancy’ or riding in empty freight cars.  Leaving their employment without permission of their employer was also a criminal offence.  They’d be found guilty in a flimsy quasi-legal process in which they’d have no legal representation and then required to pay fines and court expenses which they could not afford.  At this point, a white farmer, logging camp operator or mining company would come forward and agree to pay the fine in exchange for so many months of labour.   At times of need (harvesting time for instance), large numbers of black men might be rounded up in this way, and sometimes specific black men, known to be good workers, would be arrested in this way at the request of would be purchasers.

These convicts (even if only convicts for using bad language or dropping litter) were then bought and sold by one employer to another, whipped, tortured, forced to work very long hours and live in appalling conditions and not infrequently killed  (unlike antebellum slave owners these new masters had no long-term interest in keeping ‘their’ slaves healthy and alive).  They were also routinely kept on far beyond their original notional ‘sentence’ by being charged with additional offences or required to pay off additional debts in a system where there was close collusion between white public officials and white purchasters, and no sort of checks or balances whatever for black people, who’d been excluded from juries, excluded from participation in government, and were kept in a permanent state of fear, not only by this quasi-judicial form of oppression, but by lynchings, and by the most amazingly coarse, open, brutal and contemptuous kind of racism.  A governor of Georgia, pardoning a white man charged with rape, comments that he seriously doubts that it possible to commit the crime of rape against a black woman, so voracious and uncontrollable are black women’s sexual appetites (a view which of course gives white men carte blanche to indulge their own sexual appetites with any black woman they like).  A white US senator from the South, hearing news of a lynching in Illinois, comments that at last the Northerners are learning how to kill and burn niggers.

The double standards are breath-taking.  Black people are controlled by a mendacious, sadistically brutal and sexual predatory system because they are supposedly untrustworthy, violent and unable to control themselves sexually.  White men who’ve beaten and murdered black slaves escape prosecution or (occasionally) receive the most desultory fines, while black men are sentenced to work for months in darkness under the whip for riding an empty freight car.

Blackman’s concluding message is to remind us that the historical burden from under which black people in the US are trying to emerge is much much more recent than most people would like to admit.   (And of course disenfranchisement and segregation went on much longer even than this particularly form of slavery.   The year that Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man was the year in which I was born.)   What this book vividly and painfully shows is that those who are denied power and political participation are also denied justice and truth, but I guess it also shows that those who have power also, in a way, deny themselves the truth, for their power gives them the ability to replace reality with their own self-serving projections.  Having power over others which we haven’t earned turns us into babies.

Wondering how things had moved on since those days, I found myself looking up the websites of Southern state legislatures.  I was somewhat relieved to find that in George and Alabama, the proportion of legislators who are black seems to roughly correspond with the proportion of black people in the population in general, which is surely progress of some sort.  It’s a curious quirk of US history that all the black legislators seemed to be members of the Democratic party, the party of segregation, and the ruling party under which the attrocities described by Blackmon took place, while the representatives of the Republican Party, the party of emancipation, seemed to be entirely white.

I recommend this book, which came out in 2009 and won the Pulitzer Prize.  It has several excellent reviews on Amazon UK.  Oddly, and I wondered why this was, there were no reviews of it all on amazon.com.

Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo

I wrote here previously about my distaste for a new Oxfam ad, which seemed to me to perpetuate the nauseating stereotype of Africa as a pathetic and helpless victim dependent for its salvation on the outside world.  (I wonder how much investment has been lost to Africa as a result of this stereotype, perpetuated, ironically, by aid agencies trying to use pity to get money from us to help Africa?)

My daughter Nancy recently spent a year in Malawi, one of Africa’s poorest countries, and my wife and I spent two weeks there with her.   As we drove across the country, the delivery end of the aid business was everywhere in evidence.  One after another along the wayside were clinics, schools and orphanages funded by European and American aid agencies.  The Malawian government itself has something like half of its budget provided by foreign aid.

Malawi is a delightful country – its people are friendly, interested, and courteous in a charming old-fashioned kind of way, and certainly not pathetic or helpless – but I felt uncomfortable about what I was seeing.  Where was all this going?  Is it useful, healthy, or even sustainable in the long run, for a country to have its basic services largely provided by external donors, and often administered by them as well?  Was this really ever going to help the country reach a point where it could fund its own institutions?  Where were the industries, where were even the beginnings of the industries, that would make this possible?

So I found myself asking the question: does aid really help?

Certainly the evidence thus far is not encouraging.  As the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, observed: “In the last 50 years, you’ve [the rest of the world] spent US$400 billion in aid to Africa.  But what is there to show for it?”  Dambisa Moyo – she is a Zambian economist – observes that just 30 years ago Malawi (among other countries) had a per capita income that was higher than that of China. Why has one country shot ahead, and the other remained stuck in a state of dependency?

Well of course there are a number of possible reasons for this, and I couldn’t help feeling that Moyo skated rather lightly over some of them. (China, after all, has been a state and an urban civilization for thousands of years, long before any country in Europe, while Malawi, like most African countries, is a recent invention, and its modest cities have only existed for a century or so).   However I remained struck by Moyo’s thesis, which is that, far from being a solution to Africa’s problem with development, aid is in very large part its cause.

Aid supports rent-seeking – that is, the use of governmental authority to take and make money without trade or production of wealth.  At a very basic level, an example of this is where a government official with access to aid money set aside for public welfare takes the money for his own personal use.  Obviously there cannot be rent-seeking without rent.

It isn’t just a matter of outright corruption, though.  In all kinds of ways, Moyo argues, aid creates a system where the best way for ambitious people to get on is to gain access to the money tap, rather than to create wealth themselves.  A mineral resource such as oil can have a similar effect, resulting in a country’s elite simply living on the income derived from the sale of that resource, rather than building up an economy that would deliver wealth when the oil has gone.

Indeed, aid may not only discourage local economic activity, it may even actively undermine it:

There’s a mosquito net manufacturer in Africa.  He manufactures around 500 nets a week.  He employs ten people who (as with many African countries) each have to support upwards of fifteen relatives…

Enter vociferous Hollywood movie star who… goads Western governments to collect and send 100,000 mosquito nets… at a cost of a million dollars.  The nets arrive, the nets are distributed and a ‘good’ deed is done.

With the market flooded with foreign nets, however, our mosquito net maker is promptly put out of business.  His ten workers can no longer support their 150 dependents (who are now forced to depend on handouts) and one mustn’t forget that in a maximum of five years the majority of the imported nets will be torn, damaged and of no further use….

The gift of nets, in other words, creates a need for more gifts, and so on and on.  It’s not hard to see how such a pattern, repeated in many different ways and at many different levels, could indeed result in a permanent dependency on external aid.

Moyo advocates a gradual phasing out of aid as we now understand it, and discusses a range of different ways in which Africa could begin to finance its own development.  Her suggestions include trade, a sore point for Africa since most donor countries take away with the left hand what the right hand has given by denying Africa fair access to their markets, but Moyo points out that there are other new trading partners in the rest of the developing world (notably China and India), and opportunities for trade within Africa itself, or indeed within single countries.  They also include foreign direct investment in capital projects (such as China is now enthusiastically engaged in), borrowing money in capital markets, use of micro-finance (a means of providing small loans for local businesses which has been very effective in other parts of the world), and making better and more effective use of Africa’s own savings.  (Apparently there are huge quantities of savings in developing countries, but in the absence of access to an appropriate banking system, they are often simply held in cash, or in the form of other assets like gold, with the result that they are not available to the economy: ‘borrowers cannot borrow, and lenders do not lend’).  To those who might object that African countries would find it difficult in raising money in these kinds of ways, Moyo’s response is that dependence on aid is one of the things that make it difficult.

I’m no economist, and I’m not familiar with the literature on aid and development (as I am sure would be evident to any development expert reading this post), but I found her arguments compelling.   I suspect many people of a leftish persuasion would be inclined to dismiss her essentially market- and business-orientated solutions out of hand, but I don’t feel so inclined myself.  Another thing that struck me about Malawi (based on my own observations and those of my daughter) was the very visible presence of European and American development professionals, travelling back and forth across the country in their SUVs, doing deals, attending meetings, enjoying a bit of R & R with their families in lakeside resorts.  I’m not saying these weren’t good people doing their best, but I would much rather have seen business people looking for opportunities for investment and trade.

The Politics of Climate Change, 2nd ed, by Anthony Giddens

In a previous post, I discussed this video clip of an American woman, emerging from a cinema after seeing the film ‘Chasing Ice.’   She’s clearly on the conservative side of the  American political spectrum.  ‘I love Bill O’Reilly,’ she says (he’s a right-wing commentator on the Fox News channel), ‘I watch Bill O’Reilly every day, and I’m proud to be an American, but…’

It’s the ‘but’ that fascinated me, the ‘but’ that she felt obliged to insert before she went on to say how badly she’d been shaken by the movie and how, in spite of previous scepticism, she now recognised climate change as a reality and a threat.   Why a ‘but’ rather than an ‘and’?   If you are proud of your country, doesn’t it logically follow you’d want to protect it from being ravaged by drought, storms and global chaos?  Surely protecting a thing is something you do because of your love for it, not in spite of it?

I’m only pretending to be surprised though.  Politics is a very tribal thing.  All of us (liberals and lefties as much as conservatives) tend to subscribe to approved clusters of beliefs, rather than working out for ourselves what we think about each individual issue.  The newspapers we read, peer group pressure, our own inertia – all tend to have the effect of homogenising these clusters of beliefs, so that we end up with a comforting ‘us’ and ‘them’ (and thus a linear dimension – left-right, liberal-conservative –  to represent the entire multi-dimensional space of possibilities).  These are ‘our’ views.  Those are ‘theirs’.  And of course ‘their’ views are always based on ignorance, fear, self-interest, or a refusal to face reality, while ‘ours’ are always based on wisdom, courage, decency and deep understanding of the world.

It so happens that a concern about climate change has come in America and elsewhere to be associated with the political left.   Research cited by Giddens in this book shows that Democrats are almost twice as likely as Republicans to believe that global warming is a reality, and more than three times as likely to believe that it is the result of human activity.  That’s why the woman in the clip says ‘but’.  She knows this is an idea that is associated with ‘them’, and she wants to make clear that her essential loyalties remain, nevertheless, unchanged.   (I know how she feels.  It’s uncomfortable to admit to a view that doesn’t fit the consensus of the group that assumes you are ‘one of us’.)

One of things that I appreciated about this book is that Giddens identifies this as a problem.   A concern about climate change really should not be associated with a particular political position:  (a) because a change in the global weather system is going to affect everyone’s children and grandchildren, whatever they happen to believe about the appropriate mix in society between state and private enterprise (and all the other issues on which we disagree politically), (b) because nothing useful is going to happen if this remains just another political football to be kicked back and forth between two teams:

“Responding to climate change should not be seen as a left-right issue.   Climate change has to be a question that transcends party politics, and about which there is an overall framework of agreement that will endure across changes of government. (p 74)”

In the same vein, Giddens also argues that we need to be very careful not to automatically conflate climate change with the usual ‘green’ concerns.  Being ‘green’ is of course another cluster of beliefs and lifestyles, which are assumed to all belong together but may in fact need to be disaggregated:

“For example, a key green value is that of ‘staying close to nature’ – or, more briefly put – conservation.  It is a value that has a certain aesthetic quality to it.  It is very possibly important to the good life, but it has no direct relevance to climate change.  Clashes can easily occur between conservationist values and policies relevant to global warming – for example, conservationists might resist the building of a nuclear power station, or a wind farm, in a particular area of the country.”

Greens of course (with a few exceptions) usually hate nuclear power, and Giddens acknowledges that “the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the possibility of nuclear terrorism and the difficulty of disposing of nuclear waste” but one of the overall thrusts of this book is that “no course of action (or inaction) is without risks; and that, consequently, there is always a balance of risks and opportunities to be considered in any policy context.”

He calls this ‘the percentage principle’ (as opposed to the precautionary one).  I know it well from my career in social work. We can’t eliminate the possibility of nasty thing happenings, not least because reducing the risk of one nasty thing typically increases the risk of others.  If we are to avoid the worst consequences of runaway climate change, therefore, we will be need to willing to take some risks, and to accept some changes that, in themselves, we don’t particularly welcome.

I wouldn’t say this was a great book.  It helped me to crystallise a few existing thoughts, rather than providing me with new ones that had never occurred to me.  But it was worth reading.

Climate change is an odd kind of threat, as Giddens points out:

“Since the dangers… aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life, many will sit on their hands and do nothing…  Yes waiting until such dangers are visible and acute… before being stirred to serious action will be too late.”

He calls this Gidden’s paradox.  I’m not sure the thought is so original as to justify him naming it after himself, but the problem is real enough.   The way to get round it is to keep foregrounding the issue, and for that reason, as much as any other, I think this book is to be welcomed.